A bunch of Canucks organized a tasting of seven single malts last Saturday evening in Beijing, a city with three times (~15 million) as many people as Scotland (~5 million) but, sadly, far less Scotch. Led by co-organizer DH, about a dozen of us sniffed, sipped and savored single malts from every major region of Scotland save the Lowlands. We exchanged thoughts on these spirits and ranked each according to color, nose, taste and finish as well as 11 factors, such as spiciness, nuttiness and fruitiness. We then picked three favorites and a cellar dweller. Apples, pears and even “apple pears” served as palate cleansers and most of us took a splash of water with our whiskey, served in five-ounce tumblers.
Here are my notes on each single malt, in order of tasting. Two qualifications: one, I am a novice taster; two, reactions to Whiskey are influenced by the order in which they are tried (I’ve already received a recommendation on a different order for these seven single malts). Prices are for duty-free, in U.S. dollars.
Dalwhinnie Single Highland Malt 15-year (Highland)
In ancient times, cattle herders met in Dalwhinnie, meaning “meeting place,” which has access to peat and to a spring, which provides water for the distillery, which means the cows… wait, how exactly do they fit into the story? In any case, one word summed up the color, nose and taste of this one: butterscotch. Though the alcohol content overwhelmed the flavors a bit, this Whiskey was playful on the tongue and fairly smooth. ($41)
Macallan Elegancia 12-year (Speyside)
The packaging features Macallan’s 300-year-old Easter Elchies House, with Elchies apparently being among the few Basque words in the area – the “el” means house, the “che” means hill. This single malt matures in sherry casks from Jerez, Spain. The nose had a lightly floral honey-syrup scent, with a hint of spiciness. I found the flavors mild and balanced. ($32.80)
Bowmore Darkest 14-year (Islay)
Aged 12 years in Bourbon casks and two years in Sherry casks, Bowmore is the only distillery that malts its own barley, said DH, adding that the company literature describes this Whiskey’s color as “polished teak.” Its nose was most pungent of the seven, smelling rather medicinal (iodine) and smoky. One of the event organizers said, “It’s got a BBQ sauce thing,” which rang true. My initial reaction to this Whiskey was negative, but I slowly changed my mind (see the end). ($62.70)
Talisker Malt (Island of Skye)
This also smelled medicinal, though less so than the Bowmore. I found too many flavors going on here and someone equated the sharp alcohol edge to a “blow torch.” This Whiskey elicited the widest range of opinions. DH told us that the primary tastes are sweet and salty. “Salty” sounded right. The label stated that the “taste might be challenging to the casual [drinker].” “Challenging” also sounded right. Even better was this passage from the notes: “Noticeable peat smoke and even iodine. Very light sulphur, toffee and faintly fishy. Sherry and kippers; wax paper and candle wax; iodine, hemp, pine resin.” Yep, challenging. (Note: the liqueur Drambuie contains Talisker.) ($41.30)
The Balvenie Doublewood 12-year (Speyside)
The nose was consistent and well balanced, with appealing warmth and hints of iodine and honey. This was a solid whiskey, with some distinct toffee flavors. A few people found this single malt mild enough for sipping neat. ($27.50)
Tormore Single Speyside Malt 12-year (Speyside)
With a greenish-yellow hue, this one flirted from being a bit floral to a bit herbal to a bit sweet to a bit medicinal – a bit too many bits that made it somewhat nondescript. DH said it is considered to have a “cardboard” smell, and that rang true. (By the way, does a nicer synonym for cardboard not exist? What did Whiskey tasters call that smell before cardboard’s invention? Wet log-like? Damp leaves-ish?). Further sniffing revealed more aromas, but the Tormore did not go over well with our group, and someone, in a less than flattering light, described it as being “like a girl from Swift Current.” Hmmm…. ($31)
Dalmore “The Black Isle” 12-year (Northern Highland)
DH said I could smell something burnt (apples?), but otherwise found the nose very light, with a slight medicinal smell. The company literature says Dalmore is an “attack” on the mouth. If so, reinforcements are needed, heavily armed ones, because this whiskey was also somewhat non-descript. Some tasters noticed citrus flavors, but I didn’t pick them up, so I may have been experiencing single malt-tasting fatigue. We had chocolate with this final Whiskey and it proved popular. ($28.50)
In the end, people listed their top three and one cellar dweller. Bowmore, Balvenie and Dalwhinnie, roughly in that order, came out as winners, while Tormore finished last. The Bowmore was trickiest: my original adverse reaction to its medicinal smell and to its taste shifted over time and I ended up finding it most intriguing – more research required! Finally, if only I had read the Macallan Web site beforehand and seen the single malts being promoted with the tagline, “Savoured and enjoyed by style leaders from New York to Shanghai” – then I would have voted the Elegancia into the cellar for pretentious ads alone.
(Note: I found the psychology behind tasting to be interesting. For example, the prices of the single malts listed on the tasting sheet predisposed me toward the most expensive spirits – if they cost that much, they must be good, right? – and vice versa. Listening to neighbors’ appraisals, hearing the descriptions from the backs of the bottles and learning this or that single malt has won awards also can have an affect. It just goes to show that to get the truest reading, it’s best to taste blind.)